Hur­ri­cane Irma’s Sil­ver Lin­ing

FLORIDA KEYS BOT­TOM­FISH­ING, POST-HUR­RI­CANE, IS AS GOOD AS EVER

Saltwater Sportsman - - Table Of Contents / Features - By Ge­orge Poveromo

An­chored on a reef 40 miles from Key West, on the At­lantic side, Capt. Brad Now­icki and I had flag yel­low­tails fired up to the point of hit­ting top­wa­ter plugs. And just a few hours ear­lier, we kept our rods bent with mut­tons and grouper over shal­low Gulf-side struc­tures. Who would have guessed a ma­jor hur­ri­cane was go­ing to hit the Florida Keys just two weeks later?

But prior to New Year’s, with the re­bound­ing process in the Keys well un­der­way, I fished for snook and tar­pon around Key Largo, trolled for dol­phin off the up­per Keys, and chummed up Span­ish mack­erel in the back­coun­try be­hind Is­lam­orada. In all three in­stances, the fish­ing was su­perb. And by most ac­counts, it still is.

Pe­lag­ics mi­grate and, with the lack of fish­ing pres­sure lead­ing up to the storm and for weeks and months there­after, they surely made it through the Keys with­out many ca­su­al­ties. But what about the bot­tom­fish? Were their en­vi­ron­ments rocked badly? If not, has the lack of pres­sure bol­stered their pop­u­la­tions on the reefs and wrecks, and around sea fans, rocks and patches? Sev­eral Florida Keys cap­tains shared their views on the lo­cal bot­tom­fish­ing.

KEY WEST

Capt. Brad Now­icki fo­cuses his bot­tom ef­forts west of Key West, more specif­i­cally be­tween Rebecca Shoal and the Tor­tu­gas, where op­tions range from shal­low rocks, shoals and ledges in the Gulf to rocks, reefs and wrecks on the At­lantic side. “In the Gulf, from the New Ground rocks and out west a ways, I’m see­ing very few le­gal-size red grouper, and they’re the main­stay species here,” says Now­icki. “I’m not see­ing mut­ton snap­per like we should ei­ther. Some­thing has changed in the Gulf. Yet the fish­ing on the At­lantic side is as good as it al­ways has been, with lots of grouper, mut­tons, man­groves and yel­low­tails.

“Some divers told me the lo­cal Gulf rocks got beat hard and ap­pear to have been scraped clean, but the sea fans still look healthy. Maybe some of the for­age species for the grouper aren’t here? Maybe the grouper just haven’t mi­grated back yet? Time will tell for our

GIVEN THE IM­MENSE HABI­TAT SHAKE-UP CAUSED BY IRMA, WHAT THE FISH­ING WOULD BE LIKE AF­TER SUCH A PUN­ISH­ING STORM BE­CAME A MA­JOR CON­CERN.

Gulf-side bot­tom­fish­ing.”

Capt. Mark Sch­midt, a Key West and Mar­que­sas bot­tom­fish­ing pro, echoes Now­icki’s sen­ti­ments. “My first few trips in the Gulf re­sulted in zero red grouper,” says Sch­midt. “But we caught some nice mut­tons from 8 to 15 pounds. Sev­eral trips later, the red grouper be­gan show­ing up, though all were small. Iron­i­cally, lane snap­per seem to have re­pop­u­lated these spots in the ab­sence of grouper. Now on the At­lantic struc­tures, the fish­ing for yel­low­tails in par­tic­u­lar has been on fire as of late.”

LOWER KEYS

“It has been a bit of a re­boot af­ter the storm,” re­ports Capt. An­drew Ti­pler, who char­ters out of Cud­joe Key. “There’s a lot of sed­i­ment now be­tween the reefs and ledges. Over the long haul, this can be good for our reefs, as the sed­i­ment serves as a base for coral. It’s a nat­u­ral part of the ecosys­tem.

“For me, the reef- and bot­tom­fish­ing has pretty much stayed pro­duc­tive. The big dif­fer­ence is that some of my prime bot­tom spots have been very slow, and some of my B and C spots that I haven’t fished in a while have been very good. My ad­vice for those head­ing here to bot­tom­fish is if the more pop­u­lar spots aren’t pro­duc­ing, check out some old numbers, and move around a bit, look­ing for dif­fer­ent struc­tures. A lot of things have shifted along the bot­tom, but the fish are here; it’s a mat­ter of find­ing out where they’re sta­tioned.”

MARATHON

Speak­ing of shift­ing bot­tom, Marathon’s Capt. Jimmy Gagliar­dini says a lot of the small At­lantic-side wrecks have been com­pletely de­stroyed. “I fig­ured I’ve lost close to 60 per­cent of the wrecks I fished,” says Gagliar­dini. “I re­ally don’t think they moved but rather dis­in­te­grated from the storm pound­ing. But the ones still re­main­ing have been wildly pro­duc­tive, es­pe­cially for big mut­tons. And I can’t re­call when we ever caught so many large mut­tons on the shal­low patch reefs like we’ve been do­ing since the hur­ri­cane. Mut­tons, man­grove snap­per, grouper — it has been crazy fish­ing for them along the patches.

“The lack of fish­ing pres­sure, es­pe­cially off Marathon — which took

a se­vere hit — re­ally con­trib­uted to our ex­cel­lent bot­tom­fish­ing. I didn’t fish for two months af­ter the storm, but my cousin Capt. Ariel Medero was out just two weeks af­ter, and he tore up the bot­tom­fish. The ac­tion re­mained ex­cep­tional through Jan­uary. Now as more peo­ple are fish­ing here again, the fish pop­u­la­tions seem to have sta­bi­lized. The bite is still great, just a lit­tle off from the crazy pace we had ear­lier.”

GULF SIDE

While fish­ing along the At­lantic side ranges from good to “off the charts,” it’s a bit of a dif­fer­ent story in the Gulf, be­hind Marathon. “When I fish the Gulf now, it’s like I lost one of my legs,” says Gagliar­dini. “Most of my spots out here are gone. I’ll find a piece here and there, but it’s a to­tally dif­fer­ent game now. I had spots I could run right up to and catch co­bia, per­mit, man­grove snap­per and some grouper. Now, not so much. It’s a lot more hunt­ing for pieces and struc­tures.

“Early on in the Gulf, there were huge sec­tions of man­grove is­lands that had been ripped away by Irma, and they bogged down in about 10 feet of wa­ter. When we’d ap­proach them, man­grove snap­per would rise in bunches, and we’d catch them. They were like small reefs. But now those chunks are dead and no longer a fac­tor.”

IS­LAM­ORADA

Capt. Shan­non At­tales, who op­er­ates War Bird out of Bud N’ Mary’s, says the storm has ac­tu­ally ben­e­fited the lo­cal bot­tom­fish­ing. “A lot of al­ready de­te­ri­o­rat­ing old wrecks be­tween 150 and 200 feet were re­ally di­min­ished af­ter the storm,” says At­tales. “What lit­tle sec­tions of these wrecks were left are now spread out over a greater area. This de­pleted the fish­ing at first, but now more peo­ple are catch­ing mut­tons and grouper, once they find pieces of these struc­tures.”

At­tales says the larger wrecks are still around, but the scat­tered bits of smaller ones have been good for peo­ple who don’t know the where­abouts or have the numbers to the bet­ter bot­tom spots, pro­vid­ing they stum­ble upon them. “An­glers kite-fish­ing and drift­ing for sail­fish have no­ticed some of these struc­tures on their sonar, and a lot of those who dropped on them have caught mut­tons and grouper. In the last two months, I’ve found close to 50 new bot­tom places, mostly small zones but with very good fish­ing. We catch mut­tons on them, even grouper.

“When I troll for wa­hoo, I

stare at my bot­tom ma­chine, and I’ve picked up 20 new bot­tom spots in this man­ner. My ad­vice for other an­glers is to do the same — watch the bot­tom ma­chine when you’re trolling and drift­ing. As for the patches, some of the to­pog­ra­phy has changed, but the fish­ing is still good.”

KEY LARGO

“I’ve no­ticed no big changes at all,” says Capt. Kevin Jef­fries. “All the wrecks I fish are still in­tact and pro­duc­ing mut­tons and grouper. This in­cludes the El­bow, the 212, the 280 and the 235. The nat­u­ral reefs seem fine too.”

Jef­fries also spe­cial­izes in fish­ing north­ern Key Largo patch reefs, and he claims the ac­tion here also re­mains con­sis­tent. “I’m not sure it means any­thing, but these patches usu­ally go off in Oc­to­ber,” re­ports Jef­fries. “This sea­son, the fish­ing didn’t get hot un­til Jan­uary. The mut­tons seem a lit­tle off, yet we’re see­ing good numbers of keeper-size yel­low­tails and man­grove snap­per. And de­spite a slow­down in the numbers of hog­fish, the ones we’re catch­ing are big. Things are pretty much nor­mal around here. Any vari­a­tion, I be­lieve, is cycli­cal and not storm-re­lated. I’d say the bot­tom­fish­ing off the up­per Keys re­mains very good.”

Capt. Ge­orge Clark Jr. agrees with Jef­fries. “I didn’t experience an up­surge nor a drop in fish,” says Clark. “Our reef-fish­ing has been as con­sis­tent as usual. All the wrecks I fish are still in place and hold­ing fish. That be­ing said, the gray (man­grove) snap­per ac­tion has been ex­cel­lent since the storm, and there’s no short­age of black grouper. And there have been nu­mer­ous 10- to 15-pound mut­tons caught too. I can’t tell if all this is a re­sult of the storm or just our typ­i­cal bot­tom­fish­ing off Key Largo.”

SUM­MARY

In all, fish­ing in the Florida Keys has ex­pe­ri­enced a pos­i­tive spike af­ter Hur­ri­cane Irma. As men­tioned ear­lier, pe­lag­ics have come and gone, and the fall run of dol­phin passed through vir­tu­ally un­tapped. Now, have those fish been caught else­where, or will the Florida Keys experience a push of larger fish this sea­son? Time will tell.

As for the bot­tom­fish­ing off most Florida Keys des­ti­na­tions, it doesn’t get much bet­ter. So hurry up and get down here!

STORY AND PHO­TOS BY GE­ORGE POVEROMO

BLACKS RULE: Black grouper, a prize catch, are a big at­trac­tion in many Keys reefs and wrecks, op­po­site. MU­CHO MUT­TON: Irma broke up a few wrecks, but large mut­tons are hang­ing around the pieces, above.

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